Theresa May did not win a majority for her Brexit of deregulation. We can’t allow her to take it forward

22 June 2017

The Grenfell Tower fire has come to symbolise everything rotten in modern Britain. Deregulation and privatisation have turned the class divide into a gaping chasm. The government exists for the richest, while the rest are thrown on the mercy of the market.  

Theresa May may have failed to secure a mandate for her extreme version of Brexit, low-tax, low regulation Britain, but yesterday she set out a programme to take it forwards nonetheless. At the heart of the two-year programme is the Great Repeal Bill. On the surface, the bill is straightforward – transferring EU law into UK law so we don’t have a legal vacuum on the day of Brexit. 

In practice, the Great Repeal Bill is designed to give sweeping powers to a government with the slimmest of majorities, allowing it to deregulate by stealth. Under so-called Henry VIII powers, May’s ministers will get unprecedented powers to rewrite laws without normal parliamentary scrutiny. They promise these changes will only be technical in nature. But there’s every reason to be sceptical. 

Our new briefing with Another Europe is Possible shows just how big an effect these ‘technical changes’ could have on everyone in Britain. For instance, laws ensuring agency workers are treated the same as direct employees have always been resisted by the British government, and have been implemented in the weakest way possible. The Great Repeal Bill gives the government the chance to weaken them further. They will also have the chance – as they’ve long intended – to cap damages on employer discrimination rules, thus rendering this legislation ineffective. 

What’s more, EU principles won’t necessarily be transferred. Think about the precautionary principle, which ensures that products must be proven to be safe – to the health of the user for instance – before they can be deployed. Or the polluter pays principle which ensures that the burden of paying for environmental damage falls on those responsible for that damage. Conservative MPs have expressed hostility to both – and both could easily be dispensed with. 

The UK has already breached the EU’s torture directive on several occasions, which prohibits member states from supplying the means to carry out torture. Under pressure from Gulf States or Trump’s US, with whom May is desperate to sign trade deals, what’s the likelihood of that prohibition remaining in place?   

May might also be interested in dropping the EU’s ‘privacy shield’ which places restrictions on the ability of companies like Amazon and Facebook to collect and retain our private data. As Home Secretary, May fought against this regulation when trying to enable the state to collect private data on citizens not suspected of crime. 

There are many more examples of protections which will arise in the course of the Great Repeal Bill – consumer regulation which protect the public from dangerous chemicals, food safety protection, financial regulation, air quality and water standards rules. Many have been opposed by Conservative Ministers. Rendering these laws ineffective doesn’t simply mean scrapping them. It could mean simply removing the implementation or updating mechanisms which make them effective. 

Once we exit the EU, we leave the institutions which keep laws up to date and the sanctions which made them enforceable. For a Prime Minister given the powers of Henry VIII, it will be frighteningly easy to render regulations and protections she dislikes ineffective. 

Any MP who wants to begin healing the stark divisions in our society needs to ensure the Great Repeal Bill is amended or defeated. Theresa May did not win a majority for her Brexit of deregulation. We can’t allow her to take it forward.

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